“The United States joins our allies in reaffirming that NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and that can contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area,” he said.
Kerry’s statement did not include the words “Georgia” or “Ukraine,” however. Past efforts by the two former Soviet states to get on a path for NATO membership were stymied by European members unwilling to anger Russia, which firmly opposes further expansion of the alliance near its borders.
It was the second time in five days that the administration has sidestepped a clear opportunity to voice direct support for future NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine
President Obama told a press conference in Brussels last Wednesday that neither country was “currently on a path to NATO membership,” and added that “there has not been any immediate plans for expansion of NATO’s membership.”
Georgia and Ukraine both applied for a NATO “membership action plan” (MAP) years ago, but despite strong support from Washington were turned down at a NATO summit in 2008, with opposition led by Western European members. They were told that they “will become members” at some future, unspecified date.
Under its recently-ousted pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine in 2010 withdrew from the process although a Western-leaning future government in Kiev may consider reviving the application.
(While a crucial step, being awarded a MAP does not mean actual accession is imminent. Montenegro received one five years ago and has yet to join. Macedonia got a MAP a full 15 years ago, but Greece continues to block accession due to a drawn-out bilateral dispute over the country’s name. NATO operates by consensus; objections from just member are sufficient to block an aspirant.)
Obama’s comment in Brussels came as a particular blow to Georgia, which has striven to prove itself a loyal ally and is among the largest non-NATO contributors to the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan (Georgia currently has more troops deployed in Afghanistan than 22 of NATO’s 28 members.)
One of the main hurdles to Georgia’s NATO’s aspirations is the existence of two breakaway regions, backed by Moscow – which virtually alone in the international community recognizes them as independent – South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Many NATO members are reluctant to accept a new member that has unresolved territorial disputes or hostile ties with a neighbor. Regional security analysts point out that that stance effectively gives Russia a veto over the process: Why would it resolve the territorial disputes if that would ease Georgia’s entry into NATO – a move it strongly opposes?
The NATO-Russia Council is currently suspended as a response to Russia’s actions in Crimea, but the last time it met, in December, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear the Kremlin’s ongoing opposition to any further NATO enlargement.
“As to the extension of NATO, we are convinced that it is a continuation of the old inertia logic of the Cold War era,” he said. “This is not only preservation of dividing lines, which we are all obliged to remove, but also moving them further to the east … nobody should undertake steps that create risks for the security of their partners.”
Since the end of the Cold War NATO has undergone three rounds of expansion in areas formerly under communist domination. The alliance this week will mark the three anniversaries: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined on March 12, 1999; Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia became members on March 29, 2004; and Albania and Croatia joined on April 1, 2009.
In the face of varying levels of Russian objections, American leadership drove the expansion each time.
“No European democratic country whose admission would fulfill the objectives of the [North Atlantic] Treaty will be excluded from consideration, regardless of its geographic location, each being considered on its own merits,” NATO declared at a U.S.-hosted summit in 1999.
Kerry and other NATO foreign members will meet in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday for a meeting overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis.
The agenda includes ways to support Ukraine – possibly by providing training and other help for its armed forces – and a review of the alliance’s relations with Russia following its annexation of Crimea. The foreign ministers of Ukraine and Georgia will take part in sessions looking at the partnerships between their respective countries and NATO.
The meeting will also include a ceremony to mark the three enlargement anniversaries, and the ministers will discuss the future of NATO’s relationship with Afghanistan, with the prospect of a post-ISAF mission to train and assist Afghan security forces from next year.